"Redbelt" Holds Up Well — 3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Whether “Redbelt” is an intellectual look at martial arts or a martial arts film written and directed by an intellectual, leave it to Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet to be the brains behind this engaging lesson in philosophy and brawn. Constructed in the auteur’s savvy, wisecracking style, it further defines the legacy-proclaiming term, Mametesque.

Mamet delivers life’s underbelly sans gloss, yet never without a contemplation in social psychology. By play or film’s end the soul always gets a thorough workout, the human condition is assayed and a meditation on how the wiles of chance can affect our fortunes is tossed up for conjecture.

In this case the drama is played out within the intriguing world of those who perceive the need for a serious preparation against incursion. At the eye of the desperate storm that will take place is Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry, jiu-jitsu instructor extraordinaire. His business acumen isn’t quite as astonishing.

Act 1, scene 1, Mike’s threadbare martial arts school. Like him it reeks with idealism. His few students are confident of his integrity. Joe Ryan, a cop played by Max Martini, is his unflinching star pupil, a black belt aspirant. Keeping the books, wife Sondra (Alice Braga) complains about her impossible task.

This could be an entrée to the plot. But, when more exigent circumstances come to bear, it’s later for that. We met the panicked lady (Emily Mortimer) via the prologue. In the rain she sought a pharmacy. Closed! Now, in a crazy moment, she hurtles into Mike’s world. A gun discharges. OK, it’s a mistake. A good deed is done.

Skip to the second kindness and begin to wonder about the road paved with good intentions. In a bar, Mike comes to the rescue of movie star Chet Frank, played by a paunchy, effete Tim Allen. Dispatching the celebrity’s assailants with notable aplomb, word spreads fast. Fight promoters make offers. It’s no use. Mike doesn’t compete…yet.

However, when invited for dinner at the actor’s home and offered an opportunity to both instruct and co-produce his current war movie, Mike doesn’t demur. At long last, a way to pull the school out of debt without compromising his values. Making the dream-come-true even better, Chet’s wife wants to back Mike’s Sondra in a fashion venture.

Still, we can’t help but be wary. The first hint that all is not what it appears to be occurs after Mike gifts his money-strapped cop/student with a Rolex Chet gave him. Attempting to hock the watch, L.A.’s finest is told it’s hot. Maybe there’s an explanation. But if something is afoot, what’s the deal and how long has it been in progress?

Now, there are basically two types of folks when it comes to this sort of thing. Those who must figure it out before the closing credits, and those who are amazed that the human mind can so exquisitely weave such detailed sojourns into the depths of deceit. While both should be satisfied, special good luck to the first group. This is Mamet’s forte.

Drawn into the world of martial arts, we are soon commiserating with Mike’s attempt at purity in a profession easily compromised by the love of a quick simoleon. Isn’t it the sad truth? Whether it’s our stamp collection, a love of cars or collecting string, there’s always someone who wants us to “stop being a sucker,” to enter dollar signs into the equation.

Mamet knows this well. A tug of war ensues. But when push comes to shove in “Redbelt,” it all boils down to a time-honored, fight movie cliché. Will Mike succumb to the promoters’ promise of beaucoup bucks and sully his principled hands in the ring of combat?

Sure, it’s about the cash, but only on the surface. You see, the villains here aren’t simply content to make a bunch of moolah. To borrow from Homer and reference the title match between Achilles and Agamemnon, there is the issue of vanity. That is, though the bad guys know they’re wrong, they want their adversaries to say they’re right.

Therefore, in Mamet’s little parable there is much loathing and seething between the forces of good and evil. Add to that the long revered, oft quoted codes propounded by martial arts gurus, and yet another layer of thought is added to the moral discussion. These conflicting factors all claim a place on Mike Terry’s visage. We root for him.

Fists of fury fans expecting a non-stop, karate chopping of heads should skip this one. Indeed, Mamet couldn’t help but have it all lead up to the big bout. And it’s a doozie. But, by applying to his filmmaking the tenets he so smartly examines, the tightly fastened “Redbelt” proves that “less is more” is as valuable in storytelling as it is in martial arts.

“Redbelt,” rated R, is a Sony Pictures Classics release directed by David Mamet and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alice Braga and Emily Mortimer. Running time: 99 minutes

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